Women’s Health Q & A with Wholefoods Nutritionist Nicola Murphy


Q> What are the key health concerns that women need to be aware of in today’s modern world?
If you surveyed any group of women cancer would probably come out as their top health concern. This isn’t surprising considering one in three people suffer with some form of cancer during their lifetime but in reality heart disease is still the biggest killer. Oestrogen helps to protects women until they are post menopausal but they catch up with men rapidly after that. Women need to be far more proactive about their heart health. The good news is that there are so many simple steps that can be taken to prevent heart disease such as lifestyle and dietary changes.
Cancer is of course the next big concern and sadly it can hit women of any age. Skin, breast, lung and bowel are the most common cancers diagnosed in women. So many factors play a role in the development of cancer and research is ongoing but reducing stress, cutting out smoking and increasing the intake of antioxidants can all help.
Unfortunately Osteoporosis is still a huge issue for women today. The disease may go undiagnosed until a fracture occurs and it is estimated that only 15% of sufferers are diagnosed. It is a silent disease! Young girls and women need to put in the groundwork earlier increase their intake of calcium, magnesium and vitamin D and avoid smoking. Exercise is also key to stronger bones. Another serious health concern for women is mental health. Often hidden conditions, anxiety and depression are very prevalent among women today. Societal changes and increased pressures are possibly exacerbating the levels. Depending on the severity, it can be very debilitating and symptoms include insomnia or excessive sleeping, loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities, poor appetite, lack of energy and poor thinking or concentration.



Q>Are women considered healthier than a generation ago, or are they suffering with greater issues?
Women are living longer lives now but not necessarily healthier lives. Today’s hectic lifestyles tend to involve women juggling many roles leading to more stress and less time for exercise and healthy eating.   Obesity and diabetes are on the increase and these both tend to lead to more serious health conditions. Women are also drinking more alcohol and for younger women in particular the prevalence of binge drinking is a significant worry.  Long term it can affect the liver, brain and immune system. It is also disappointing to see the statistics on women and smoking. Despite all the health campaigns and publicity about the dangers of smoking, one third of women still smoke and it seems to be more attractive than ever for younger women.  More women are dying from lung cancer now than breast cancer which is distressing when it is largely preventable. Stress levels certainly seem to be higher for women now than they were in the past and this can have a serious knock on effect on general health. When we look at digestive problems, heart conditions, hormonal problems and mental health, stress is often the main culprit.



Q>In terms of nutrition, what are the most important considerations for women?

First and foremost it is essential to choose natural, fresh foods with as much variety as possible. Incorporate plenty of fruit and vegetables into the diet as they are rich in fibre, a vast array of vitamins and minerals. The more brightly coloured fruit and vegetables especially are teeming with antioxidants which protect the body.
Banish processed foods as much as possible. They tend to contain an abundance of empty calories and are laden with sugar, salt , bad fats and possibly a string of additives but have little nutritional benefit.
Managing blood sugar levels properly is crucial in preventing diabetes, weight gain, low energy levels and mood swings. This can be mastered easily by incorporating protein into each meal as it slows down sugar absorption. Good protein sources include eggs, fish, chicken, nuts and seeds. Watch out too for hidden sugars in biscuits, cakes, juices, yoghurts etc.
B vitamins are important for energy production, hormone production, mental alertness and for a healthy nervous system. All important to women. They are found in a variety of foods including wholegrain cereals, eggs, dairy foods, green leafy vegetables and nuts. B vitamins are very heat sensitive. For this reason it would be best to steam cook vegetables and grains instead of boiling to reduce the loss.
Iron deficiency is common in menstruating women with fatigue, pale skin, hair loss and shortness of breath resulting.  Iron rich foods include red meat, shellfish, poultry, leafy green vegetables, beans and lentils.
Essential fatty acids found in fish, nuts and seeds play a key role in preventing heart disease and depression. They also boost brain function, reduce inflammation in the body and can work wonders on the skin!
Most women are aware of the importance of calcium for their bones. Calcium is readily available in many foods including dairy products, green leafy vegetables, nuts including almonds and hazelnuts and seeds. But the role of Magnesium and Vitamin D in bone health is crucial too.



Q>And what are your top supplements for general women’s health?
A good multivitamin/mineral providing high levels of B vitamins. Taking it in food form as several formulas provide now would be ideal as absorption of all the nutrients would be maximized.  Algaes such as Spirulina which are rich in B vitamins and minerals is a useful way of getting the natural state.
Omega 3 fish oil or flax seed oil . The benefits of essential fatty acids in the body are incredible but despite best efforts most people don’t consume enough through their diet. A high quality Omega 3 Fish oil would be first choice as the EPA and DHA are readily available but flax oil is an option for vegans and vegetarians.
Magnesium – essential for energy production, hormonal function, reducing blood pressure, balancing blood sugars as well vital for calcium absorption ensuring good bone health. Unfortunately women are frequently deficient as the mineral is in such demand around the body so a top up would be beneficial.
Vitamin D – as the main source of Vitamin D is sunlight and food sources are very poor, it is not surprising that deficiency is a problem in this part of the world.  We have been aware over the years of the benefits of Vitamin D in bone health but now there is so much research demonstrating its benefits for the immune system, heart and nervous system among others. It cannot be ignored so supplementing especially during the winter months would be advisable.



Q>Turning to PMS, does diet and lifestyle play a role in how much a woman suffers? What would your dietary recommendations be?

Diet and lifestyle can definitely play a role in PMS. A diet rich in processed foods, fizzy drinks, caffeinated drinks and alcohol with little fresh nutritious foods is not going to supply the body with the nutrients it needs for healthy, happy hormones. Such a diet can put an immense pressure on the liver for starters. As a result the liver can have difficulty processing the hormones efficiently, potentially leading to hormonal imbalances. Vitamin B6 and Magnesium are two of the most important nutrients involved in hormonal balance. However the metabolism of Vitamin B6 can easily be affected by alcohol and Magnesium can be destroyed by caffeine in tea, coffee and some fizzy drinks. Consuming a diet rich in fresh vegetables and fruit, nuts and seeds and good protein foods such as eggs, fish, chicken, beans etc will help supply a lot of the vital nutrients. Wheat in bread and pasta can contribute to bloating so are best avoided or reduced. Watching salt intake will also help reduce fluid retention. Drinking plenty of water will also help.  Avoiding refined carbohydrates and sugary drinks and foods will help to stabilise blood sugar levels and reduce cravings and mood swings.



Q>And what supplements are known to help?
Vitamin B6 and Magnesium – both help with hormonal balance and are also involved in serotonin (happy chemical) production. Vitamin B6 is also involved in blood sugar balance so it can help reduce cravings. Magnesium can also help reduce cramps, tension and headaches.
Evening Primrose oil or Starflower oil – both contain GLA. GLA can help to reduce breast tenderness for many women and also reduce mood swings.
Agnus Castus – a herb that helps to boost progesterone levels to restore hormonal balance. It can help relieve heavy painful periods, breast tenderness, low moods and fluid retention. Agnus Castus should be taken over a period of a few months for best results and it should not be combined with other hormonal medication

*As featured in Naturally Good Health Magazine Feb 2013



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